The Gospel of Scott Adams

by Krishna on August 8, 2008

Reading a Dilbert cartoon or a book by Scott Adams, one is often struck by how closer they are to real life in the business world than more “serious” business books. It is surprising on one level because business books are supposedly more researched. Yet, on a different level, it is not that surprising , because humor is more capable of portraying unsavory truths.

It is easy to recognize ourselves or our co-workers in a Dilbert cartoon. I sometimes wonder if Scott Adams should be made mandatory reading for all managers before their first assignment. But perhaps I am being too optimistic. It is not a lack of knowledge about stupid strategies and tactics that makes bad managers. It is the inability of bad managers to recognize when they are doing something stupid.

It is natural for most of us to only notice wrong or bad behavior on the part of others. We find it much easier to criticize and blame others. A good manager can rise above this by taking responsibility when he or she is at fault. A good organization can make it safe for people to admit mistakes and move on, thus making it a better place for good managers.

Having said that, I sometimes feel that the cynical viewpoint presented by Scott Adams can be counter-productive. Good and bad managers fall in a continuum. Most managers have weaknesses of some kind. They are not perfect and it is impractical to expect them to be so. Viewing your manager as a pointy-haired boss because of some stupid actions may prejudice you against the overall good work he is doing.

I am reminded of a Harvard case study of a meltdown between a securities company and their consultant group. One of the key failures was the kick-off meeting, where the company CEO presented a vision of the project, but the consultant assigned to the engagement interpreted the speech as a series of “corporate platitudes” and “banalities”. It is very easy for people to attribute wrong motives to figures of authority.

A fine balance has to be struck between sincerity and cynicism. It is true that everyone has their own agenda. But that doesn’t mean that everyone is acting selfishly all or even most of the time. Everyone also has their own failings and weaknesses, and you have to manage around them to get things done.

Being too cynical can hinder your own growth. For example, it is generally true that organizations do not (and perhaps cannot) reward high performing individuals in proportion to their contribution. But if you understood this truth and stopped putting less effort, you may be avoiding opportunities for learning and growth. Instead, by taking a short-term loss, you could do something to help you in your long-term career.

Be cynical if you have to, but do not mix it with emotion.

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